Washington Supreme Court rules charter schools are unconstitutional

Charter schools in Washington state could be on the way out before ever really getting started. The Washington Supreme Court ruled Friday the schools couldn’t exist for several reasons, including the fact the charter schools aren’t governed by elected officials. The Olympian has a roundup of the Supreme Court’s decision.

In the lead opinion, Chief Justice Barbara Madsen said the case wasn’t about the merits of charter schools, simply whether they were eligible for public funds. Citing state Supreme Court precedent from 1909, she said they are not eligible because they are not under the control of local voters. Washington charters are run by private nonprofit organizations that appoint their own boards.

Chief Justice Barbara Madsen also complained the 2012 law approved by voters would take money from the legislative school fund, which gives money to public schools. But Justice Mary Fairhurst noted in her dissent that’s not how the legislature funds public schools (emphasis mine).

The legislature no longer uses the current school fund, and, in fact, the current school fund is extinct. This likely explains why no court, until the majority, has ever cited to Yelle since it was first published nearly 80 years ago. The legislature now supports public education primarily through the general fund. Unlike the current school fund, the general fund is inherently unrestricted and may be used to support charter schools. Yelle did not forbid the legislature from using unrestricted resources in the general fund for other education purposes. Indeed, after Yelle, the legislature made a nearly identical appropriation to the Board for Vocational Education but this time from the general fund instead ofthe current school fund.

So Madsen’s reasons for ruling charter schools invalid are just plain wrong because of how the state handles school funding. Madsen’s complaints about the charter boards being appointed, rather than elected, are also ridiculous. The schools are still under the oversight of the Washington State Charter School Commission, which means they have to pass both state and federal academic requirements. There are also organizational and financial framework requirements to make sure the schools aren’t about to go belly up.

But the biggest reason why Madsen is wrong has nothing to do with finances or academic requirements. It’s about who has the power: an elected school board or parents. Madsen believes in the former which is sorely short-sighted, and something Hayden K. Smith at FreedomWorks pointed out in 2013.

Our public schools have largely failed to meet even the most basic standards of education. In February of 2012 the U.S. Department of Education reported that nearly 20% of high school graduates were functionally illiterate. Results of the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 13% of high school seniors were “proficient” in U.S. history. The graduating class of 2012 held the lowest average SAT reading score in 40 years…What better a way to solve the above issues than allowing parents a greater say in where and how their education tax dollars are spent. No government official will care more for a child’s education than the parents of that child, and there is no better incentive for schools to change the way they teach than the challenge of competition.

Charter schools aren’t the answer to everything when it comes to education. Cato Institute wrote in 2012 most charter school students originally came from private schools. This means a higher burden on taxpayers because more students are on the state dime. Cato suggests tax credits (i.e. vouchers) so parents can better afford private schools. This isn’t a bad idea, but there may be other solutions as well. One of the hardest is breaking up school districts and making all public schools charter schools. This way parents can be more involved in their child’s education and have more of a say in what the schools do. It might take years for individual states to do this sort of thing, not only because of the power of teacher unions, but also because of the amount of legwork required. States would have to break up one or two school districts to see if accountability is higher with an appointed board versus an elected one and if academic expectations equal the actual results. If that works, then they can start breaking up other districts.

The other idea is turning all schools private and allowing vouchers. It would probably take years, if not decades, to put a program like this in place and politicians might not have the stomach. But making all schools private would save taxpayer money and, much like charter schools, give parents the chance to be more involved and hold the schools accountable. Parents would also know where tuition money was going and would get the chance to pull their child out of the school if they’re not a fan of it. It’s true not every parent would be able to afford private schools, but this is where the vouchers come in because they can help parents pay for tuition. One concern is it might actually push up tuition cost, like financial aid has done for colleges. It’s still something to investigate though because of the potential benefits.

Not every charter school succeeds. Texas Observer wrote last December how charter school closures were up in Texas. But the closures happened after a new law was passed requiring the mandatory revocation of charters. The schools also have the chance to appeal. There’s also the case of Prime Prep Academy, the school co-founded by NFL Hall-of-Famer Deion Sanders, which collapsed faster than Enron in January after three years of operation. But these appear to be exceptions to the rule and not an indication of how poorly charter schools run. The counter-argument to the “charter school are bad” argument is pointing out how New Orleans education has improved since Hurricane Katrina. Reason’s Savannah Robinson had a piece on how over 90% of students in New Orleans go to a charter school and succeed.

Following Hurricane Katrina and education reforms, the performance of students rose steadily compared to that of students in other Louisiana districts that were affected by the hurricane. Superintendent White also stated the city’s on-time high school graduation rate has increased from 54 percent in 2005 to 73 percent by last year. Furthermore, 76 percent graduate in five years, which exceeds Louisiana’s average, and the graduation rate for black students surpasses the national average.

Private schools should always be more preferable to either charter schools or public schools. At the same times, charter schools are better than public school districts because parents can hold school leaders more accountable. The Washington Supreme Court was wrong in its decision, and it again shows how regressive the judges, teachers unions, and some politicians can be. Charter schools can have less politics and bureaucracy than public school districts, plus better education choices. If the states are going to keep funding public education, then it should be through charter schools. It’s just unfortunate the Washington Supreme Court decision could affect the 1,200 students who may have to find new schools right as classes get ready to start.

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